Bonsai (Japanese: 盆栽, lit. ‘tray planting’, pronunciation (help·info)) is a Japanese art form using cultivation techniques to produce, in containers, small trees that mimic the shape and scale of full size trees. … This may be a cutting, seedling, or small tree of a species suitable for bonsai development.Similar practices exist in other cultures, including the Chinese tradition of penzai or penjing from which the art originated, and the miniature living landscapes of Vietnamese Hòn Non Bộ. The Japanese tradition dates back over a thousand years.
The Japanese loanword “bonsai” has become an umbrella term in English, attached to many forms of potted or other plants,and also on occasion to other living and non-living things. According to Stephen Orr in The New York Times, “the term should be reserved for plants that are grown in shallow containers following the precise tenets of bonsai pruning and training, resulting in an artful miniature replica of a full-grown tree in nature.In the most restrictive sense, “bonsai” refers to miniaturized, container-grown trees adhering to Japanese tradition and principles.
Purposes of bonsai are primarily contemplation for the viewer, and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity for the grower.By contrast with other plant cultivation practices, bonsai is not intended for production of food or for medicine. Instead, bonsai practice focuses on long-term cultivation and shaping of one or more small trees growing in a container.
A bonsai is created beginning with a specimen of source material. This may be a cutting, seedling, or small tree of a species suitable for bonsai development. Bonsai can be created from nearly any perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning. Some species are popular as bonsai material because they have characteristics, such as small leaves or needles, that make them appropriate for the compact visual scope of bonsai.
The source specimen is shaped to be relatively small and to meet the aesthetic standards of bonsai. When the candidate bonsai nears its planned final size it is planted in a display pot, usually one designed for bonsai display in one of a few accepted shapes and proportions. From that point forward, its growth is restricted by the pot environment. Throughout the year, the bonsai is shaped to limit growth, redistribute foliar vigor to areas requiring further development, and meet the artist’s detailed design.
The practice of bonsai is sometimes confused with dwarfing, but dwarfing generally refers to research, discovery, or creation of plants that are permanent, genetic miniatures of existing species. Plant dwarfing often uses selective breeding or genetic engineering to create dwarf cultivars. Bonsai does not require genetically dwarfed trees, but rather depends on growing small trees from regular stock and seeds. Bonsai uses cultivation techniques like pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation, and grafting to produce small trees that mimic the shape and style of mature, full-size tree.The Japanese art of bonsai originated from the Chinese practice of penjing. From the 6th century onward, Imperial embassy personnel and Buddhist students from Japan visited and returned from mainland China. They brought back many Chinese ideas and goods, including container plantings.Over time, these container plantings began to appear in Japanese writings and representative art.
In the medieval period, recognizable bonsai were portrayed in handscroll paintings like the Ippen shonin eden (1299). The 1195 scroll Saigyo Monogatari Emaki was the earliest known to depict dwarfed potted trees in Japan. Wooden tray and dish-like pots with dwarf landscapes on modern-looking wooden shelves also appear in the 1309 Kasuga-gongen-genki scroll. In 1351, dwarf trees displayed on short poles were portrayed in the Boki Ekotoba scroll. Several other scrolls and paintings also included depictions of these kinds of trees.
A close relationship between Japan’s Zen Buddhism and the potted trees began to shape bonsai reputation and esthetics. In this period, Chinese Chan (pronounced “Zen” in Japanese) Buddhist monks taught at Japan’s monasteries. One of the monks’ activities was to introduce political leaders to various arts of miniature landscapes as admirable accomplishments for men of taste and learning. Potted landscape arrangements up to this period included miniature figurines after the Chinese fashion. Japanese artists eventually adopted a simpler style for bonsai, increasing focus on the tree by removing miniatures and other decorations, and using smaller, plainer pots.[